I grew up in the era of pre-sliced orange cheese (that is, not real cheese, but something called "processed cheese food") and pillowy white bread that had no taste, and even less texture. My mom dutifully made grilled American cheese on white for my brother, David, almost every day. She cut it diagonally, which he insisted upon (for reasons I could never quite fathom), put some margarine in a pan, fried the sandwich, and there was peace in the realm. I probably ate a few of those grilled plastic squares too, but I choose not to remember that part.
The glory days of Kraft American cheese grilled on soft white bread.
Fast forward a few decades. I now love grilled cheese. My version bears little resemblance to my mother’s. I use any bread I have around – preferably good sourdough, rye, or challah (Jewish-style egg bread). The cheese can be sharp cheddar or any other “hard” cheese.
I used only 2 1/2 ounces of good cheddar cheese and it was plenty.
I use butter instead of margarine – much better taste and barely more than a tablespoon will coat the bread just fine. The pure joy of this version is that it doesn’t matter if the bread is stale or the cheese isn’t in perfect slices. All that matters is that they are tasty and that they are cut reasonably thin. If your bread is pre-cut, that’s fine. Even good white bread works – just don’t let me catch you using that mushy, over-processed stuff that masquerades as bread.
Only three ingredients are absolutely essential - bread, cheese and butter.
My sure-fire method for melting cheese is to put softened butter on the outside of the sandwich slices (instead of putting the butter in the pan and melting it as my mother did),
It's a little messy to put the butter slices on the outside, but it means that you use much less butter and the bread grills more evenly.
to pre-heat the pan, and to cook the sandwich
I like to pat the top of sandwich down with a spatula to help seal everything inside. Even so, if the sandwich has lots of filling, flipping it over can be dicey.
in the covered pan on a medium-low light.
You don't even need a cover that fits tightly - mine doesn't.
Be patient. If you rush the grilling, you are likely to burn the bread. I timed my sandwich today - it was 5 minutes on each side or 10 minutes total cooking time.
The goal is to get the bread on the bottom grilled nicely before you flip the sanwich over to cook on the second side. The cheese may not be thoroughly melted when you flip the sandiwich, but take heat - it will get be finished by the time the second piece of bread is grilled.
If you like to add extras into your grilled cheese, try sliced tomato.
These are campari tomatoes - bigger than grape and cherry tomatoes, but smaller than regular size. They work just fine and I don't have extra left over, the way I would if I used a regular size tomato.
When I’m feeling decadent, I add ham or cooked bacon too. A bit of sliced roasted turkey from the deli is a nice touch if you prefer less fatty meat. You can add mustard to the inside of the bread if you are in the mood for a slightly tangy sandwich.
I admit that I love meat in grilled cheese sandwiches.
One of my favorite grilled cheese sandwich variations - with tomato and bacon.
If you like to experiment and love beautiful food photography, head on over to Grilled Cheese Academy.
I would have photographed the whole sandwich, but by the time I grabbed the camera, I had already eaten half of it!
And you are in luck if you’ve fallen head over heels for grilled cheese today. You’ve still got time to register for the “Second 8th Annual Grilled Cheese Invitational”, April 23, 2012 in LA Or, if you’re reading this after that great event has already passed, check for blog postings celebrating what I'm sure will be a glorious day for grilled cheese lovers.